How to transform Labour

Our guest writer is Gina Byrne, Compass

The media is abuzz today with Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet appointments ahead of the imminent Spending Review. And yet, Labour’s new leader has much more to initiate during his first month as leader.

Compass is calling on him to follow the suggestions made in our recently published report, ‘Transforming Labour: A Charter for Party Renewal‘. As the new Labour leader he not only has the power but also the authority to instigate reforms in the workings of the Party machine.

There is a strong case for radical change in the Labour Party. The defeat in the May election was the party’s biggest since 1929. Since 1997, membership has fallen from over 400,000 to 166,000 (although has risen since the election). There is discontent within the ranks; clearly people are unhappy with the way the party was – and is – being run.

In ‘Transforming Labour’, Compass examines the results of the survey it carried out in April 2010, where more than 1500 Party stakeholders, including 700 members, gave their opinions on a variety of statements on the current and future state of Labour. A potential picture of Labour’s future gradually emerged.

From the survey’s findings, Compass has produced a charter for party renewal to transform Labour. It focuses on four main areas of reform – transforming the national party, transforming the youth and student wings of the party, transforming local parties, and the issue of primaries.

Over 86 per cent of respondents believed that Labour members should have a greater say in the Party. Some bold but simple reforms to restore direct membership democracy would not only ensure that the leadership could be held to account on major decisions, but also help rebuild mutual trust between grassroots and the upper echelons of the Party. With this in mind, the charter’s first suggestion is the election of the chair of the Party on a one-member one-vote basis. Over 80% of respondents supported this idea.

Similarly, over 78% supported the idea of all Labour Party stakeholders being given the opportunity to submit their ideas for the manifesto before a general election, followed by a one-member, one-vote ballot of the Party on their top ideas for inclusion. Also popular was the idea to hold a formal process, involving all Party stakeholders, to debate and restate Labour’s aims and values immediately after a general election – over 80% supported this.

In terms of the role of Conference, many were in favour of changing it into a vehicle where grassroots activists and CLP delegates have a direct hand in shaping Party policy. Over 73% supported the idea that any resolution receiving the support of at least 2% of members should be brought to debate and voted on, while 68% supported the idea of holding Party referenda.

Any transformation of Labour, however, must not simply focus on the national spectacle of Conference, but also local party organisation, the selection of candidates and a greater voice for younger members. Looking to the youth and student wings of the Party, over 60% of respondents supported the idea of the chair of Young Labour becoming a full-time sabbatical support officer, in paid employment and elected annually. Over 70% believed there should be an annual youth conference.

As over 63% of people believed that central control over local parties was too stringent, ‘Transforming Labour’ looked to ways in which local parties could achieve more autonomy. 71% supported a proposal to give local parties more flexibility in their structure, with a national minimum standard supplemented by the ability to adopt a structure that best suits their circumstances.

In terms of the selection of MPs, 78% supported the idea that incumbent MPs should automatically face a formal reselection process before every general election. While many Labour MPs have strong links with their local parties and communities, it is vital that accountability is available at every level of the party.

Following recent debates about the possible use of primaries at local, regional and national level, Transforming Labour also consulted its respondents on this issue. What was found was that many party members and activists are at present unconvinced of the arguments in favour of primaries.

Over 58% believed that opening primary voting beyond the local party membership would undermine the value of being a Labour Party member, and only 35% believed that primaries should become an element of the Labour leadership election. Over 66%, however, believe that primaries would be a viable method of candidate selection if strict rules were imposed on spending and conduct.

Overall, ‘Transforming Labour’ paints an interesting picture – one of a Party urgently in need of reform, yet also of an organisation composed of passionate individuals eager and ready for change. Within the ranks there is a vision of a different party, one which has made radical structural changes to become more involved with its grassroots, more decentralised and, ultimately, more democratic.

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